April 19, 2019, 6:45 a.m.
Flooding last month damaged lots of homes and businesses. High waters also reached Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue, where cleanup and rebuilding is expected to take quite some time.
“We were driving boats over those fences and over that dumpster. It was just that much water,” said Brian Thomas, command chief master sergeant of the 55th Wing of the U.S. Air Force. He’s only been on the job seven weeks. The last month has been taken up by flooding at Offutt Air Force Base where he works.
First, it was preparations.
“In total, we really only had about 30 hours to prepare for the flood. From initial notification on that Friday, late morning early afternoon, until we finally had to, we were forced to retreat back because of the impending water, which was on Saturday evening,” Thomas said.
Thomas says the preparations were extensive.
“Even though we’d had several hundred great volunteers that had been working throughout the night to build about 265,000 sandbags to protect our key critical infrastructure, it proved to kind of be futile, because the water was higher than anybody had predicted,” Thomas said.
Contracted employees of the Environmental Restoration, LLC company deploy a spill containment boom around the Offutt Air Force Base fuel storage area as a precautionary measure March 18, 2019 following flooding of the southeast portion of the base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Delanie Stafford)
One part of that infrastructure was a back-up power station. Water made it into that building, but the backup generators weren’t needed during flooding. After flooding in 2011, the base added a power station further uphill, which was completed in 2013.
John Winkler is general manager for the Papio Missouri Natural Resources District. He says plans to update levees and protect Offutt from flooding started even further back than 2011.
“After Hurricane Katrina, the Missouri and Mississippi river basins were remapped and the base flood elevation along the Missouri River changed. It was determined that that levee system no longer provided 100-year flood protection as it was originally designed and built, and so to continue to have that certification by FEMA, it was required that the levee be rehabbed to new specifications,” Winkler said.
The permitting process to start the levee rehab took roughly 6 years. Winkler says the natural resources district finally got a permit last year.
“We issued a contract in February for a contractor to begin that work starting this spring. So as soon as the area dries off sufficiently and the contractor can get his equipment into the work area, we will begin that rehab project,” Winkler said.
In addition to levee fixes, there’s extensive damage to the Air Force base itself. Water at one point covered about a third of the base and affected 44 buildings where people work every day. That means right now, 3,200 airmen and civilians are displaced. Thomas is one of them. He’s working out of a temporary office.
Thomas describes the first steps for getting back to normal. It starts with DynCorp , a self-described “global government solutions provider” the Air Force has contracted with.
“So as the team of contractors from DynCorp makes their way into these facilities, they’re going in, they’re cleaning them out –you can see some of the pressure washers and things out here –and then they’re going through and they’re assessing what repairs will need to be done,” Thomas said.
At one point during the flooding, the security forces headquarters building at Offutt had nine-and-a-half feet of standing water in it. Thomas points to one sign of the flood’s power.
“Over like here in the ball fields, like the dumpster that got positioned on top of the dugout. We believe in this area, at the deepest point of the flood, at the peak crest of the flood, there was about 20 feet of water,” Thomas said.
The water didn’t just move dumpsters. An empty fuel tank was toppled. The water also touched everyday things. Thomas pointed to a few cars left in a parking lot, each with flood debris and mud visible.
“Unfortunately, some of these cars you see in the parking lot, they could not be moved in time. The members themselves are deployed overseas, and we tried to get as many as we could, but unfortunately we could not get these three particular cars out,” Thomas said.
Moving cars was made more difficult by having to do security checks on any tow trucks coming into the base.
The planes at the base fared better. The 55th wing and their mission partners evacuated 15 aircraft from Offutt. Many of them went to the Air National Guard Base in Lincoln.
The National Guard also suffered its own damage. The Camp Ashland training site flooded from Salt Creek and a levee breach on the Platte River.
Lisa Crawford is a public affairs specialist for the Nebraska National Guard. She says classes have had to be relocated to other National Guard facilities.
“Normal… normal will be an interesting word, but the main timeline we’re looking at is we’re trying to bring the classes back by June, by the June timeline to have classes operating again at Camp Ashland, but everything’s kind of dependent upon how quickly the rebuilding process takes place,” Crawford said.
Back at Offutt, Thomas says normal may have to change now.
“When you have a flood like this, everybody takes a holistic look. Here on base as we begin to take a look at rebuilding, clearly we’re gonna take a look and not just put structures back where structures were,” Thomas said.
The first part of that rebuilding process, the assessments, is expected to be completed by the end of the month.